Why “Train Smarter” Has Always Bothered Me and the Rule of Longer

I’ve always had an internal objection to this phrase, “train smarter, not harder.”  On the front of it, I think people should train however makes them feel the best...

I’ve always had an internal objection to this phrase, “train smarter, not harder.”  On the front of it, I think people should train however makes them feel the best and that can be from minimal to excessive; whatever moves you toward your target.  Behind it, however, I think I take issue with the phrase because it implies that there’s something “stupid” about training hard, as well as something shortcut-y about training “smart.” I don’t like either of those things. My husband wrote something along these lines a bit ago in the Slow Cook vs the Hack, but these are today’s thoughts in a different direction.

Grit and Time

This morning I was listening to a book on my MP3 player as I shadowboxed and finished up my conditioning. I bought two mental training books prior to my trip to Laos, in order to have something to occupy me during the long 10-hour car ride and so that I could “hit the mental gym” while I was away from the actual gym for a few days.  I’ve found that this mental work is really important for me, perhaps even more than the physical work. The second book, which I’m still working through now, is called Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. It’s largely organized around businesses and how to motivate your employees, but 99% of concepts of mental training can be translated between sport and business by swapping out a few words.

This morning the chapter I was listening to was discussing “grit,” which is the “right stuff” that gets some people through tough times and the lack of which allows others to tap out.  The author mentions the 10-year rule regarding mastery (which is called the 10,000 Hour Rule in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) in reference to how long it takes to become good at something.  He clarifies that the people you see who are approaching mastery of an art or skill are those who are willing to put in the hours toward the mundane elements of that skill – the folks who are willing to drill the basics day in and day out long after they’ve become proficient at the rudimentary elements. Therefore, the question is not training harder so much as training longer.

This struck me like an epiphany of sorts. The truth of it was self-evident, but it also illuminated what exactly about the saying “train smarter, not harder” is so irksome to me: it’s the implication that smarter is some kind of shortcut, or that shortcuts – or “hacks” as they’re called now – are smart.  To me the folly of that thinking is self-evident and this expression of longer, not harder, really brought that home for me. This means longer in front of the bag, longer in the ring, longer in vision.

There are only so many words in a language, and yet some of us string together words more elegantly than others. There are only so many lengths, widths, curves and angles of lines – and yet some of us are much better at drawing than others.  It’s the same with Muay Thai. There are only so many strikes, turns, angles, deflections, steps, etc. And yet how we put those together is magnificently unique. Den, my trainer at Lanna, would always say to me, “Everybody have their own Muay Thai.” And it’s true – but that isn’t an accident of inborn talent; it’s a methodical choosing of what we want to be good at.  One can learn a jab within a few minutes, but to be good with the jab means one has to keep throwing that jab for years.  It’s not who trains smarter or harder; it’s who trains mindfully, longer.

The Rule of Longer and the Guide of Play

But the contingent that one trains mindfully is incredibly important. There are times – long stretches of time – when you will be uncomfortable, when you will fail and struggle, and the thing you love doing – you don’t love doing it all the time.  The way to get through those long hours toward mastery is to be mindful and put yourself in a state to be open to learning, to be present. That’s a bunch of hippie, new-age sounding stuff there, but the word that most of us might find more approachable (or even more enticing) is the concept of “Flow.” You get into a state of flow even under pressure, even when it’s hard and your body is tired, but you’re in the moment and you just ride it. This state is elusive. Know who is far more familiar with the state of flow? Kids. Kids are awesome at flow because for years they live it. Their minds haven’t developed doubt and self-awareness to the point of self-critical-analysis yet. They can’t project, so they’re just in this moment all the time. Kids call it “play.”

Muay Thai flow - play in Training - Isaan

Pink, the author of Drive, explains that at some point we decide there’s a distinct line running between work and play, and that this shouldn’t be; that likely we develop the assumption that this state of play is “childish” and we distance ourselves from it.  He’s writing about motivation and success for businesses, which is about as “work-oriented” as you can get; for those of us who are professional athletes, the things that many people do to blow off steam or to have fun and stay fit – things that are “play” for adults – are our concepts of “work.”  This is terrible for businesses and it’s terrible for athletes trying to work toward mastery as well. The way to endure the length of time required to become proficient is to put yourself in the state of being open to learning, which means being open to mistakes – it’s “flow,” and it’s related to “play.”  The motto should be flow longer.

“When you are able to mix autonomy, mastery and purpose into your work, you can quite easily enter a state of “flow” – one where time stands still and you can become completely ensconced in your work…Flow comes from engaging in tasks that stretch us just a little bit [a Goldilocks task] so we are totally engrossed in the process of attainment.” Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Perhaps it is good to set out a spectrum of concepts. Flow exists between “work” (which can highly focused, critical and diagnostic, as well as laborious, boring and exhausting) and “play” (which is creative, energizing, non-task oriented, mistake prone and engaging). A reason why Thai fighters are so good is that much of the early learning, which does involve lots of physical work, is done closer to play. As they get older, they enter a state of flow more readily, where concentrated work for long periods of time produces the most benefit.

Work Flow and Play - Keys to Training Hard

There is another difficulty that I face all the time, which is that I use this word that I don’t fully understand the concept behind. I tell myself I want to be good. I want to be a good fighter. This is a concept that has worked against me through its vagueness. I want to be “good”. What does that mean though, really? Where my lack of understanding hurts me, I think, is in my failure to compare this goal with something of equal difficulty. Imagine wanting to be a “good person.” That exists and it’s an honorable goal to strive toward. But it’s not a target. There’s no point at which you can dust off your hands and say, “well, I’ve done it! I’m a good person now, let’s pack it up and frame the certificate of completion.” That’s obviously bullshit. Being a good person is a continued effort – it’s not a state of being, it’s a path that you walk or a course on which you set your path. It’s the same with being a good “whatever.” A good person can do bad things sometimes, behave badly or hurt people, but you right your ship and carry on toward this path of goodness. A good fighter can and will lose; you can have shit days or be bad at some things and better at others. There’s no, “well, I’m good now. Mission accomplished.”  In this way being “good” is like trying to be “masterful”. You practice better by knowing you’re on an endless path.  If what you’re aiming for is mastery then you must also recognize you’ll never reach this goal to the point of completion. Likely, you’ll never reach satisfaction either. What an insane thing to dedicate oneself to. Insane and brilliant. Once you realize that wanting to be a “good” fighter is really more like a pursuit of mastery, you are able to focus on the endless ladder of goals and flow-work that lie before you.

The Difference Between Being Good and Mastery

I’m pretty good at walking. Like, I don’t fall down very often and I can walk pretty much on any surface, for long stretches of time, under various different circumstances and basically any time I want to. I’m a good walker. But I don’t think about that much because I take it for granted that I don’t have to concentrate on it. My trainer, Pi Nu, has a 1-year-old son named Not. Not doesn’t walk very well. He hasn’t put the time in yet, but he’s got a good attitude about it and laughs almost every time he falls down. So, if I’m good at walking, how do I know I’m good? Well, the above mentioned skills are a good indication of my proficiency, but mostly it’s the not thinking about it part. So, say I want to be good at kicking. That means, in a reductive way, that I’m saying that I don’t want to have to think about kicking anymore. But that’s not what I want, not when I really consider it. Instead, I want to be aware enough of my kick to improve it all the time – I don’t want to obsess over it at every second and I want to be able to flow and kick without being critical of it when I’m fighting and at many times when I’m training – but I want to keep getting better at kicking in a way that I don’t really care about getting better at walking. I’m all set on my walking proficiency.

But that’s because I’ve reached my goal for walking. In order to keep getting better, to stay on the course toward mastery, I need to train longer. Not smarter, not harder; just flow longer. In order to flow, I need to also acknowledge that I will never be as good as I want to be. Ever. And that’s okay. That’s kind of the point, to keep reaching into the infinite. This isn’t though the “train smarter” approach in the sense that hard, long work is somehow wasteful, and that if you design your workout intelligently you can get the same or even better results with less “work”, ie effort. Thais train in a very “inefficient” way at the surface of it, but what they are training is the focus of fundamentals in flow. It’s train smarter in the sense that indeed it takes a lot of grit and endurance to train long enough to master fundamentals, but if you can enter flow, these highly labor intensive sessions become more full of life and are much easier to manage both psychologically and physically, not to mention much closer to the art.

 ”In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.” – Drive by Daniel H. Pink

photo image credit at top: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP – Getty Images

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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